Last month Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, said that the authorities had no interest in seeing Yukos, one of the country’s biggest oil firms, go bankrupt. Investors, scared by the Russian authorities’ relentless pursuit of Yukos and of its imprisoned former boss, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, breathed a sigh of relief.
But the past week’s news has made them wonder whether to trust the president’s words. On Tuesday June 29th, a court overturned Yukos’s appeal against a $3.44 billion claim for back taxes for the year 2000. Though Russian bailiffs can allow up to five days for complying with a court order, they turned up just two days later at the company’s offices to begin enforcing it.
And just a couple of hours after they left, the tax ministry announced that it will go to court with a new and almost equally huge tax claim for 2001. A further raid took place at the weekend, when company officers managed to dissuade prosecutors from removing computer servers that control Yukos’s oil production.
The company’s domestic troubles triggered alarm among its foreign creditors and shareholders. On Friday, a group of western creditor banks told Yukos that they consider it to be technically in default on a $1 billion loan. The banks have to do this before launching any court action to recover the sum owed.
However, they are understood not to be trying to force Yukos to repay the loan immediately, as that could force the group into insolvency, thus jeopardising the loan. Also on Friday, Roxwell Holdings, a Bahamas-based investment company, launched a lawsuit against Yukos, its main shareholders (including Mr Khodorkovsky) and auditors, in New York, alleging that the defendants had misled investors by understating the taxes owed.
The forced annihilation of one of Russia’s biggest and most successful companies would be seen as a damaging sign of how far the Kremlin is willing to bend the law to its own ends: whatever Mr Khodorkovsky’s guilt or innocence, it is widely believed that his troubles mainly result from his having used his economic and political clout to obstruct the government’s economic plans.
The confusion about what is really going on, and what are the authorities’ ultimate objectives, is only adding to the stockmarket’s panic. Even if, contrary to Mr Putin’s assurances, the plan is indeed to wipe out Yukos, it seems unlikely to happen quickly—despite warnings on Friday by Viktor Gerashchenko, the former central-bank chief who recently became the firm’s chairman, that it might have to cut production within days.